Whatever else we Methodists did during General Conference this month, we certainly reaffirmed our inability to agree on matters of human sexuality. We’ve tackled the issue head-on in every General Conference since 1972, four years after The United Methodist Church was formed by the union of the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist churches. But the deeper issue, I think, goes back to the first Christian congregations in the 50s – that’s a. d. 50, not 1950. And I think our striving toward the prevalence of one side over others, in a debate where opposing viewpoints seem clearly irreconcilable, is misplaced. We may never have agreement – I think we probably won’t – but we already have something greater, if we will accept it and live into it. We have reconciliation, the perfect wholeness that comes when opposites embrace even without agreement. We have the ministry of Christ.
In his letter to the Galatians, as in other letters, Paul is already forced to address deep divisions in the emerging church. He writes that he is “astonished” that the Galatians are so quickly deserting his original teachings and going after a perversion of the gospel of Christ (Gal. 1:6-7). Earlier, you recall, Paul had written to the Corinthians, chastising them for quarreling and dividing into factions over competing leaders and their messages (1 Cor. 1:10-17).
“Has Christ been divided?” he asked? Were you baptized into some sect, or into the body of Christ? Did you pledge allegiance to those in the church with whom you share an opinion about some matter of theology? Or did you commit yourself to being part of the body of Christ, in whom “all things hold together” and in whom “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Col. 1:17, 20)?
These are not academic questions. We’re not speculating idly about arcane points of theology. Today we’re going to baptize an infant into the Christian faith. What are we getting him into? – a culture war in which he will one day be asked to choose a side, or the reconciled and reconciling church whose one foundation, whatever our differences and disagreements, is Jesus Christ our Lord?
Today in this generation in this part of the world, the quarreling is over human sexuality, or reproductive rights, or global warming and the integrity of creation, or economic justice. In the mid nineteenth century we were debating the use of tobacco and alcohol or dividing over the issue of slavery. Two millennia ago we were splitting into factions over whether or not to keep a kosher kitchen or circumcise male infants. Deep issues, all of them. Important issues. Quality of life issues. Human dignity issues. Justice issues. Reign of God issues, every one.
In our debate, opinions are strong, emotions high and raw, the discussion discordant. Much is at stake, things of eternal consequence. But more than the particular issues in any one of these debates, I believe there is a greater issue at stake, one in which every other debate must take place, one in which the mettle of the church will be tested and proven. It’s not a question of who has the better opinion, the truer faith, the clearer revelation from God. It’s a question of whether the siren call to be right will lure us away from the ministry of reconciliation that makes and preserves the church.
In the interest of transparency, I confess I have strong opinions about some of the issues that divide us. For example, I believe our Book of Discipline is right in affirming “that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God,” including those whom God creates to be homosexual, and that “all persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment” (par. 161F). I believe that includes recognizing and affirming their call to same-sex marriage and to ordination in the ministries of the church. I believe to fail them in these areas is to fail Christ.
I also confess that I don’t speak for God on this or any other issue; that I have not yet been made perfect in love or in my understanding of God’s will; that I am prone to error; and that I have room to grow. My faith has changed significantly since childhood and I expect will continue to do so. Today I “see in a mirror, dimly,” and not yet “face to face. Now I know only in part” and not yet fully, as one day I expect to be known (1 Cor. 13:12).
So while I believe I am right in my opinions in these and other matters about which we in the church differ, I recognize that others may also be right and that at some level we both have roots in eternal truth. And I believe God will one day clap us on the back, invite us all in for a cup of coffee, and tell us how in all our blind and bumbling ways we came that close to living the truth yet missed it.
What does this have to do with Conrad and his baptism today? When we baptize Conrad into the Christian faith, I believe we’re not baptizing him into dogma and doctrine; we’re baptizing him into relationship. It’s a relationship, as Jeremiah described it, in which God’s law is no longer written on stone, immutable, but is written on the human heart – soft, responsive, capable of growth, subject to change. It’s a relationship in which we no longer have to teach one another to know God, for every one of us, from the least to the greatest, already knows God personally and with integrity (Jer. 31:31-34).
No one can say what the future holds for Conrad, whether he will be straight, gay, bisexual, or transgender; whether he will face the blessings of genius or the challenges of learning disabilities; whether he will bear the blessing or burden of any other common condition of life. Perhaps the arguments of faith that confront him will be whether genetically modified humans will be allowed to procreate or whether intelligent androids will be allowed to vote.
No one can say anything about those things. But we in the church say something else. We say he will be loved; we say he will be valued for who God creates him to be, whoever that is; we say that because Conrad will always have a place in God’s heart, he will always have a place in ours.
Only twice in all the gospels did someone exhibit a faith that amazed Jesus. One was a Canaanite woman, and the other a Roman soldier, both of whom came from outside Jesus’ own faith tradition. Baptism, I believe, is not an occasion to bring someone into fortress church as a defense against the “other.” Instead, it’s an invitation to embrace the “other” in the eternal dance of contradictions and inconsistencies that make up the whole of life. It’s an opportunity to unbind faith from the particulars of our own histories and welcome some new, eccentric expression of God as a gift to all of us.